We’re one week away from the midterm elections.
Many voters around the country have made it clear that they’re mobilizing — in one direction or another — in response to President Donald Trump. And, there are few places where that dynamic will be more consequential than in Suffolk County, home to New York’s 1st Congressional District.
The district swung heavily to Trump in 2016. He won it by 12 points after President Barack Obama had narrowly claimed victory there in two straight elections. But some public and private polls indicate that Trump may be losing support in this stretch on the eastern end of Long Island. If anti-Trump sentiment claims Republican incumbent Rep. Lee Zeldin there, it would be a warning for other swing districts around the country.
That’s the subject of our elections podcast “The Bellwether,” following two key congressional races on Long Island that have lots of lessons for the midterms at large. There’s still plenty of time to binge and prep for Tuesday by subscribing on iTunes or listening online.
Our latest episode looks at the Trump vote in Zeldin’s district. Zeldin, a military veteran seeking a third term, won with an even higher percentage in the district in 2016 than Trump did. But, for better or worse, Zeldin also has allied himself closely with Trump — or, in the immortal words of state Assemb. Fred Thiele, “he’s kind of attached himself to Trump like a barnacle on the hull of the Titanic.”
Thiele is a former Republican in the district who now caucuses with Democrats, and the barnacle-ization he’s talking about includes the fact that Zeldin danced around criticism of Trump on issues like Trump’s denigration of African nations and the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. The congressman sponsored a resolution calling for a new special counsel, which was supposed to investigate the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. And he rallied with controversial former Trump aides like Sebastian Gorka (who was accused of having ties to Hungarian hate groups) and Steve Bannon.
Zeldin has since quieted his support and focused more on local issues in the last weeks of the campaign. But if the anti-Trump reaction is strong come Election Day, Zeldin may be among those primed for a hit.
But the deeper question here is, what happened to Suffolk County? It’s just a short Long Island Rail Road ride from New York City, yet politically it’s a different world.
How did a county go so heavily for Trump, when Democratic voter registration has slowly risen toward the level of GOP and GOP-allied registration?
Some Long Island politicos make an economic argument — that parts of the county haven’t recovered from the financial crisis and people may have voted for change through both Obama and Trump.
Thiele, for example, likens the non-Hamptons parts of the 1st Congressional District to Ohio, Michigan and western Pennsylvania. There, the jobs lost might have been in steel or cars or coal. Here, they were in the defense industry and aerospace. Still, the types of jobs that haven’t quite come back.
This, combined with the racial issues that Trump tapped into, may help explain a shift. (On Long Island, KKK flyers have sporadically been found in places like Hampton Bays, Shirley and Rockville Centre.)
Some Democrats make a different argument. Local Democrat-supporting super PAC Taking Action Suffolk County, for example, thinks that Democratic voters have recently been less than engaged by the Democratic Party, and so they haven’t shown up for congressional candidates. That seems to have happened in 2014, when Zeldin first beat incumbent Democrat Tim Bishop, who faced lingering questions from a probe into his campaign fundraising. Zeldin won that year with fewer votes than the Republican who had actually lost to Bishop in 2010, another midterm election.
The argument goes: Democrats are plenty engaged this time, so you won’t see a low-turnout situation.
If you talk to Republicans, however — like party county chair John Jay LaValle — they say that Trump still retains his hold on his base, and any loss in enthusiasm won’t be more than the usual midterm dip of a party which just won the presidency.
For those getting their news from sources like Fox alone, there may be something to this. On certain issues important to the faithful, Trump carries on.
In a race that seems likely to turn on Trump, of course, Trump himself is still a wild-card factor. Will there be any new actions for people to be responding to, in one way or another?
Says observer Thiele: “People ask me what’s going to happen? I say, ‘Tell me what’s on the front page of Newsday the last two weeks of October and I’ll tell you.’ I mean I’ve never seen a political climate that’s as volatile as this.”